Dead Men Left

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Limey assholes go home (except we're here already)

Paul Kingsnorth has donned his tweed suit and re-filled his briar pipe to put pen to paper for England, Harry and St George:

It was Gap that made me snap. I was passing my local outlet, when my eye was caught by a poster in the window. It said, in giant script: "FALL SALE. 50% OFF!"

It took a while to sink in. Fall sale. What? This isn't America, it's England! We don't have "a fall", we have an autumn!

I found myself frothing in despair at this corporate colonisation of my language, my culture, my public space. I looked around. Nobody else seemed to mind - except for Lynne Truss and now John Humphrys, both of whom have turned their despair over the misuse of English into highly readable books.

"Nobody else seemed to mind." Why should they? There are all sorts of complaints to be had about Gap, not least the use of sweated labour in stitching together their boring over-priced garments, but to complain on the grounds that they are an American corporation is just odd. Worse than odd: this is faux-radical outrage; the concern is not with the material conditions of Gap's existence, and its brutalised workforce, but with its appearance. It is leavened with an well-developed strain of English chauvanism, which Kingsnorth, warming to his old buffer theme, develops in the next paragraphs:

Perhaps I was the only one who cared that the English today have no idea who they are. Their culture in retreat, much of their history forgotten, great swathes of their landscape being transformed into soulless non-places at breathtaking speed, they - we - are a lost people. We dress like Americans, sing like Americans, shop like Americans. We turn our pubs into chain bars, grub up our orchards and shutter our farms, transform our villages into commuter suburbs, crucify our towns with ring-road Wal-Marts.

If England ever was, in George Orwell's words, "a family with the wrong members in control", it now seems more like a broken home. The English are becoming a deculturised people. Sneered at by the left, hitched to dubious causes by the right, English culture has been treated for years as an embarrassment; some monster locked in the attic, which escapes occasionally in big boots and with shaven head to terrify the neighbours.

And so on and so forth: a tedious refrain, repeated ad nauseum by socialists bearing rightwards; or by the miserable and confused who feel that the Right are having a wild old flag-waving time, and that they want in on the fun. It is a sham, of course; England has little in the way of a "national culture" that was not either invented for mass consumption by the later Victorians, or simply appropriated from abroad. Only a moment's reflection, meanwhile, will reveal what a sorry, pitiful island this would be without the immense impact of identifiably American cultural imports, most markedly over the last 50 years.

There is little, or no, long-standing popular tradition in England: the English peasantry, that great repository of folk ritual and collective customs, was torn off the land decades - if not whole centuries - before its counterparts throughout Europe. An unusually successful and aggressive class of agrarian capitalists broke apart both the institutions of the "moral economy", and the cultural practices it sustained.

By the close of this process, some two hundred years or more after it began in the sixteenth century, such folk-rituals as had survived were wretched shadows of their former selves. Some were maintained around collective institutions like the local pub, or the local church; some - those more unsettling to the established order of things - were driven underground, reappearing in the mummeries and rituals of the early trade unions and friendly societies. Most withered and died, victims of an increasingly privatised culture of consumption.

The reconstruction of an "English" culture only began to take place in the later nineteenth century. David Cannadine noted how the monarchy was brought from a reviled and penny-pinching insitution in the 1810s, to the heights of imperial grandeur under Queen Victoria. The process was contested; Royden Harrison, in Before the Socialists, gives some indication of widely-held republican views in the 1870s, and the popularity of the republican movement under its charismatic leader, Charles Bradlaugh. The identifiably proletarian cultural institutions began to coalesce in the same period: with rising real wages and a decades-long slide in food prices, the space in which a cheap, accesible popular culture could flourish was reopened. The traditional proletarian cultural environment, dissected most astutely by Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy grew not as the autochthonous expression of long-repressed radical urges, but as the slender entertainments sprouting from recently-planted seeds. Summarised in Hobsbawm's depiction of the ubiquitous cloth-cap - uniformly visible in photographs of working-class crowds from the early 1900s to some way beyond the Second World War - this new culture combined a vehement contempt for bourgeois norms, with a pronounced deference. Perry Anderson's brilliant 1965 essay, "The Origins of the Present Crisis", developed this peculiar, contradictory combination into an historical theory to account for the dominance of Labourism: a relatively settled bourgeoisie produced a "supine, subordinate proletariat", myopically unable to see beyond its own parochial concerns: whether the inveterate economism of the British trade union movement, or the pronounced resistance to new cultural forms, Anderson holds that the British working class was perhaps uniquely, obstinately attached to a Victorian condition of life.

His thesis contains some truth, but goes too far: glossing over the pronounced moments of radical rupture in British history, not least of which - the drawn-out crisis years of 1918-1926 - formed the Labour Party as a mass political organisation, enjoying a unique and largely unchallenged hegemony over the British working class. The Labour Party grew from the defeats of mass, radical political movements. It did not grow, as it were, immanently from longstanding cultural practices. Kingsnorth makes the same error as Anderson, with incomparably less finesse: seeing the cultural expression of the thing as thing itself; seeing the imposition of US cultural capital as displacing honest British ways of life; removing us from the contested spheres of economics and politics, to the vaguer, slower-moving world of culture.

The simple truth is that the British working class is amongst the most identifiably modern in the developed world. The positive elements of its culture have emerged to a near-unique degree from the interaction between global capital, and global labour migrations; its practices of longer-standing remain, but have shown themselves to be flexible in response to the global economy: the pub now serves Thai curries for consumption during European soccer matches, watched on a Japanese TV and washed down with continental lager. Where, in all this, is "England"? Why fight for a shadow?